Instrumental Performing Careers

I retired several years ago as a professor of music from a NJ State University after 24 years. This ended a 30-year career of institutional teaching that spanned 4th grade through graduate school. Having also been a full-time musician for the past 45 years while completing two Masters degrees and a DMA in music, I have a somewhat unique perspective of having lived inside the music industry as a performer, student and teacher simultaneously. While this article might be considered by some as biting the hand that once fed me and a means to vent frustration at a failing and out-of-touch educational system, I hope it will be taken as an honest look at the state of today’s music industry and a prescription for music programs to change in order to help aspiring instrumental music students prepare for the real world.

The music industry as it existed throughout the majority of the 20th century is dead! The paradigm of the large-scale record companies, which acted as the epicenter of the industry and influenced every type of musical career and ensemble, has been gradually eliminated over the past 30 years. Few arts organizations have been able to survive the cultural shift in musical tastes over this time without major changes in their mission statements. As a result, in today’s music industry there are fewer full-time jobs for instrumentalists than in previous generations. That is, work that provides a livable wage, health and pension benefits, contributes to the individual’s social security account, and has a long-term future. In its place is a new startup model trying to take shape based around individual entrepreneurship and diversified areas of expertise. Yet, there are 653 colleges/universities who are currently members of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM)—the primary certifying organization of music programs in this country—which graduate thousands of very talented young people each year looking to perform in the music industry. The vast majority of these music performance programs emphasize Western European classical music and in more recent years, jazz. However, these genres combined represent 2.8% of the total consumption of music in the U.S. according to the 2014 Nielsen report. (Each genre accounted for 1.4%.) Is it any wonder, then, that instrumentalists who spend their college years devoted to attaining a career performing in either of these genres of music while spending $80,000–$250,000 for a Bachelors degree and $30,000-$70,000 for a Masters degree, have little chance of doing so? (These figures include room, board and tuition.) But there is hope. There are ways to improve the existing degree program models to make them more relevant for their paying customers. The sooner higher educational institutions move in a new direction which recognizes that each student must, in essence, become their own record company in order to survive, the better the chances are for their music performance graduates to find employment AND that the institutional music programs will remain in existence. This article will look at the state of today’s music industry and the performing opportunities that exist while offering future generations some guidelines for choosing schools of music. But first, here’s where we are at the moment:

Many of the traditional jobs in symphonic/opera/ballet orchestras have been eliminated or their incomes severely compromised by reduced weeks of employment. Many, unfortunately, have also gone out of business. Even recording contracts for the major orchestras, which provided an extra source of income that the musicians counted upon, are gone with the exception of the contract that the L.A. Philharmonic and Dudamel enjoy. Audience attendance is declining and the most popular and profitable concerts that orchestras offer these days are often those involving video game music, movie soundtracks, and pop artists. Most orchestral performers in this country must have at least one or more additional jobs to make ends meet. (This does not include the contracted musicians in the top 12 major U.S. orchestras, which still pay a livable wage.) In addition, the competition for the few jobs that do become available is intense. Orchestral auditions are overloaded with qualified applicants and landing a job in a major orchestra is akin to winning the lottery.

Careers as a soloist or as a member of a chamber ensemble have always been difficult to attain and are near impossible these days. New chamber ensembles focused on presenting contemporary music or Baroque music have sprung up over the past 15 years in many large cities and in conservatories. They are essential and wonderful. But they are not full-time organizations that can pay the bills! Freelance work, always an important part of the classical musician’s life and pocketbook beginning in the 1930s, came to a halt for all intents and purposes around 2000. The part-time ensembles in many of the major cities that provided a good amount of work for freelancers started reducing the number of concerts that they could afford to present due to declining revenues from diminishing audiences, a paucity of donors, as well as poor management by their Board of Directors. Musicians, who had previously found themselves associated with multiple part-time groups that also created work for substitutes when performances of these various ensembles overlapped, now had fewer opportunities to choose from. The result has been that roster players rarely take off from these jobs and subbing has become a difficult if not impossible way to earn a living. That, coupled with the demise of the demand for classical recordings, has effectively ended the freelance industry for classical performers. Classical instrumental performance majors therefore have a very narrow scope of jobs available to them.

The job prospects for jazz performance majors are not much better. Virtually every university/college/conservatory music department now offers at least one jazz performance degree. Since jazz is an art form that evolved in the 20th century and jazz performance degrees have emerged over the past 40 years, one would assume that the required courses in many of these programs are more connected to present-day job requirements. The only problem is that there are very few jobs! There are no big bands that work enough to pay anywhere near enough money to live on except for the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra (i.e. Wynton Marsalis). Small group work that will be long-lasting is the province of major talents such as Brad Mehldau, Joe Lovano, Chris Potter, Fred Hersch, Bill Charlap, Dave Douglas, Esperanza Spalding, etc. A great many jazz performers who stay in the business for the long haul therefore seek other means of revenue. Many find work in musical theater; rock/pop-influenced bands; composing and/or arranging; institutionalized teaching; or non-music day gigs. Major label recordings, which in previous eras gave jazz artists income and visibility through radio play, club appearances and concert dates, began to evaporate in the 1980s when the new tax laws made it harder for record companies to write off their losses. (Jazz artists were often signed to labels because record company executives knew that their records would not yield a profit and could be used to offset the profits that pop artist recordings brought them.) And most venues in which jazz artists perform are not signatories to a union contract and therefore do not offer any benefits beyond the standard “pay for play.”

The stereotypical studio and network staff musician positions that were often the most lucrative have unfortunately become historical anecdotes. Movie soundtracks, instrumental recordings, sessions that backed up singers, and commercial jingles represented the heart and soul of the New York and Los Angeles recording industries. They have vanished or in the case of movie soundtracks, have moved to locations in other countries where musician and production costs are considerably cheaper. The few late night television bands consisting of anywhere from 5–10 musicians on The Tonight Show, The Late Show, Late Night, The Late Late Show, or Jimmy Kimmel Live are the closest examples to resembling network staff musicians. The days of successful jingle houses that could produce an average of 5 jingles and/or demo sessions each week with lucrative residual payments for the extremely talented and versatile instrumentalists, singers, arrangers, and composers who created them were greatly diminished by the 1990s. With the advent of sophisticated synthesizers, new recording technologies, and affordable home studios, jingles and other commercial recording ventures began to be created and performed by a select few performers.

Club dates (casuals) and hotel band work provided a consistent means of employment for thousands of musicians throughout the U.S. for much of the 20th century. Large club date offices in every major city often employed hundreds of musicians for profitable weekend work and even had weekday jobs as well as for their most established bands. This type of work (weddings, bar mitzvahs, dances, office parties, etc.) was often the starting point for young musicians to “learn their trade” as well as the primary means of income for experienced musicians, many of whom were veterans of the big band era. These musicians began to be replaced by DJs in the 1990s and more recently by library music played over iPads and other portable computers by laymen participants at these events.

In the post-World War II era, all of the larger hotels in the major cities and resort hotels outside these cities had shows featuring name performers that required show bands of 12–15 musicians or more on a daily basis. They also employed several dance bands as well. (Many employed Latin bands in addition to the standard dance bands that played tunes from the American Songbook.) As the new pop artists of the 1960s/1970s began performing with self-contained units, the need for hotel “staff” bands waned and these musicians were let go. People were dancing to the newer rock-influenced music played by smaller bands and the hotel dance bands also found themselves looking for employment elsewhere.

While Broadway musical theater has continued to survive and thrive over the last 40 years, the number of Broadway orchestra positions mandated for each theater was reduced by 25% in 2004. While these numbers have remained for the last 12 years, a large Broadway “orchestra” today for new productions is considered 12–18 musicians—a far cry from the 30+ musicians one heard in Broadway pit orchestras during the heyday of the 1940s–1970. Some of this reduction in numbers is also due to the fact that Broadway musicals over the past 15 years have been increasingly based on the popular music of the 1970s and 1980s. (Broadway is a retroactive industry.) These scores mandate a band of 5–12 performers as compared to an orchestra. When a rock musical wishes to perform in a large Broadway theater that requires a larger amount of musicians to be hired, the producers can appeal this requirement based on artistic principles. They have often prevailed in these decisions and a smaller band is allowed to work. Also, as a result of pop music’s emphasis on rhythm section instruments and electronics, the traditional string, woodwind and brass positions have experienced the greatest reduction in musical theater work. These reductions have also been reflected in touring companies and regional theater productions of Broadway musicals, which continue to provide jobs nationally and internationally for musicians.

I know that all of this paints a rather depressing picture of the industry. BUT IT IS THE TRUTH! If any music school/department were to tell it like it is, they’d be out of business with regard to performance majors. Given the information stated here, how long can institutions of higher education continue to offer performance degrees in a field that is clearly downsizing with programs based on an antiquated model? It won’t be long before the only schools besides conservatories offering this type of degree will be the big football schools in Division 1-A conferences who need to field huge marching bands and therefore must have well funded music departments. Unless…

The first thing that students looking for careers in performance must recognize or be made aware of is that the likelihood of holding down one job during a lifetime is rarely a possibility in today’s music industry or any industry, for that matter. While that axiom of the mid-20th century American worker has always been difficult to attain in music, today it is virtually impossible. As Gertrude Stein said: “A job is a job, is a job…A career is a series of jobs!”

The performing musician of today AND tomorrow needs to be an expert multi-tasker, a chameleon of musical styles, and a well-informed, aggressive businessperson. He/she must be willing to do some teaching (institutional or private); write and arrange original music; organize ensembles and find performing opportunities for those ensembles; create and produce their own recordings; and play music other than their preference if they are to survive. In addition, all performance majors should take every opportunity to play for campus musical theater productions in order to be familiar with that genre of work. Those willing to embark on this journey will need to focus on many areas of musical development as well as performing and should seek out schools that will allow them to pursue these areas in working towards their degrees. Every school that offers a music performance major degree MUST have a state-of-the-art recording studio large enough to record an ensemble of 20 players along with a full-time recording engineer!

The core courses that have been offered by music schools for their classical and jazz performance majors for decades include large and small ensembles, ear training, sight singing, music theory, piano skills, composition, orchestration, and music history. They are necessary and still remain relevant. However, listed below are 12 non-traditional courses and fields of study that I believe every performance major must be required to take in addition during their undergraduate years and are equally important.

  • History of the Music Business
  • Music Business Law
  • Social Media Development
  • Music Notation Software
  • History of Pop Music
  • Pop Harmony & Composition
  • Creating Your Own CD
  • Computer Music Technology
  • Musical Engineering
  • The Physics of Music
  • Introduction to Music Education
  • Wall St. & Investment Strategies

The “Creating Your Own CD” course entails a four-year project where the student is responsible for every aspect of the recording process—from making a project proposal with a detailed timetable for completion; to composing the music & creating the arrangements; rehearsing the music; producing the album; designing the album; manufacturing the CD; and promoting the final product. This is a model that Humber College in Canada requires of every undergraduate music major and we should follow this example. These courses in their entirety should provide students with a reasonable understanding of the world that they hope to enter. Whatever restructuring of the credit allocation for awarding the degree must be done ASAP at schools throughout the U.S. if they hope to continue to attract the best and most creative undergraduate music students.

Masters programs offering performance degrees should demand more of their students in their fields of specialization but must also add more practical courses to their curriculums such as:

  • Artist Management
  • Concert Program Development
  • Grant Writing
  • Auditioning Techniques
  • Conducting
  • Developing a PR Portfolio

In addition, the faculty that all performance majors should encounter must BE CURRENTLY ACTIVE PROFESSIONALS IN THEIR SPECIALTY. There have been too many doctorates awarded in the field of music over the past 40 years to people who never succeeded as either performers, composers, musicologists, music business executives, etc. in the real music world. And in many cases never even tried. Too many were professional students who received their degrees, one immediately after the other, and then went immediately into teaching. As long as they had articles published in an industry journal, showed service on university committees, and got favorable ratings from their peers, they often received tenure and had their lifetime gig. Yet, these are the individuals who have been left with the responsibility of turning out young, talented performers to survive in today’s music industry. And these students are putting their lives and careers in their hands after mortgaging the family jewels in order to afford the tuition costs! Too often, a faculty member is assigned a course based on seniority; or if they have “some” knowledge of the course’s orientation; or if they “like” the subject matter; or if they need the extra teaching credits (money) that the course offers. We need to change the playing field from “those that can’t play, teach” to “those that can play and care, must teach!” While no institution can guarantee anyone a career, the attempt must be made to update existing programs in order to become more attuned to the current music industry—both in their course offerings and their faculty.

Since schools require most prospective candidates for tenured positions to have doctorates and most active music professionals do not, we are left in a Catch 22. The solution for this scenario is simple, though. If schools really care about their music students beyond fielding a marching band or having an ensemble perform for a campus event, they will look to hire the best active performers, composers, musicologists, and music business professionals who have a Masters degree AND can demonstrate an ability to teach to fill these positions. (A Master’s degree is certainly a reasonable requirement for even the finest performers today who would welcome a university teaching position.) In the discipline of Art, the terminal degree is a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) and teachers are awarded professorships and tenure with that degree. Just because doctorates in music have been established doesn’t mean that someone who lacks a doctorate is less capable of teaching or becoming a valuable asset to their students’ futures and the university. The students AND the university lose when they are denied the absolute best artists to work with in their community. Who really cares, besides NASM, what percentage of faculty has doctorates? When are the schools and certifying organizations going to care about what percentage of graduates have jobs in their major?

The onus, however, ultimately falls on the student and his/her family to be better informed about the state of the music industry and the success or failure of any degree program being considered. A well-informed High School music director would be most helpful in steering the talented individual towards the best performance programs, but that brings up another problem that I’d rather not delve into at this time. Hopefully, the student’s private instrumental instructor can be a source to aid in this process. I hope this article has done likewise.


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